LONDON, Ontario — There was little question about the United States’ dominance of figure skating when Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding swept the medal podium at the 1991 World Championships.
Flash forward 22 years. Here at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, Americans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold are fighting not only to reach the podium themselves but also to reclaim a measure of global prominence that the United States has lost in recent years.
At stake with their performances in Saturday’s free skate is a third spot at the 2014 Winter Olympics for a U.S. woman. To get it, they must finish worlds with a combined placement of 13 or less.
They’re tantalizingly close, scored fifth and ninth, respectively, for their short programs Thursday, putting them in striking range of a goal that has eluded the American women every year since they fell short of the standard in 2008.
Among those rooting them on is 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski.
“We have so many great skaters from the U.S., we should have that third spot,” Lipinksi said in a telephone interview, “but I think it’s very important for the up-and-comers, too — the skaters we don’t know about yet.”
Lipinski cites her own experience, finishing third at the U.S. championship at age 13 to quality for the world championships, which she won the following year.
“Everyone tries to predict what’s going to happen, but every skater’s career is so different,” notes Lipinski, 30. “Things can happen with luck and chance and timing. Having that third spot might give someone we don’t even know her career.”
On the men’s side, U.S. national champion Max Aaron and silver-medalist Ross Miner were trying to achieve the same goal in Friday’s free skate, but they faced near-impossible odds, entering the final phase of the men’s competition in eighth and 14th respectively. That’s an enormous amount of ground to make up — vaulting from a combined placement of 22 to 13 — against a field that includes Patrick Chan and Daisuke Takahashi, who have claimed the last three world championships.
David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, concedes that sending three athletes to the upcoming Sochi Games in each discipline would be ideal.
“We want to have the maximum number of entries,” Raith said Friday. “It helps build our program to give more opportunities to more athletes. More exposure to the international scene helps the placement of our athletes as they progress up the ladder. The more athletes that we have in the competition, the more interest there is.”
But Raith insists that three Olympic spots isn’t the “end-all,” suggesting that too much is being made of it as a measure of U.S. Figure Skating’s success.
“Only one can be on the top of the podium; you can’t have three on the top of the podium,” Raith notes. “I’ve heard people say ‘We’ve got to get three!’ But no, we don’t. Two is a good number. Three is the optimal number, but having two is good. We certainly want more than one.”
Entering Friday’s pairs free skate, the U.S. faced the possibility of seeing its Sochi allotment in its weakest discipline pared to one. While ice dance has flourished among American skaters in the past decade, pairs has languished. Rather than trying to gain a third Olympic entry, the two American pairs competing at this world championships were striving to hang onto the country’s two spots. To do so, they needed a combined placement of 28 or better.
They delivered, with Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim finishing ninth, and Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir ending up 13th, after their short and long program scores were combined.
The world championships held the year prior to the Winter Games determine each country’s allotment of Olympic berths. The last time the U.S. women earned combined placements of 13 at a world championships was in 2007.
To Audrey Weisiger, who coached two-time world bronze medalist Michael Weiss, the loss of that third spot for U.S. singles skaters is discouraging.
“It offers more opportunity for skaters in this country,” said Weisiger, who is based at the Fairfax Ice Arena. “We have thousands and thousands of skaters, and they get weeded out.”
Regaining a third Olympic spot also would elevate the visibility of U.S. figure skating, Weisiger believes, and inspire more youngsters to try the sport, strengthening the pipeline for future Olympians in the process.
“If you have three skaters that are participating in the Olympics, it creates more popularity,” says Weisiger, who laments the fact that the 2013 World Championships aren’t being telecast in the United States. Instead, she’s following them on her computer via a Latvian station.
“It’s helpful when our skaters are regarded as bring the best in the world,” Weisiger notes. “In any sport, if you can show some global dominance and power, then there is a pride.”
Note: Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won gold in pairs; Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy took silver, and Canada’s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford took bronze.